President Obama said his daughters would not receive the same quality education in D.C. public schools as they get at their elite private school.
"The D.C. public school systems are struggling," Obama said on NBC's "Today" show before noting that "they have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform. There are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system."
But when asked whether a D.C. public school could offer Malia, 12, and Sasha, 9, as much as Sidwell Friends School, their private school in Northwest, the president said, "I'll be blunt with you: The answer's no right now."
Obama said some public schools in the District were "on par with any private school in the country, but ... a lot of times you've got to test in, or it's a lottery pick for you to be able to get into those schools."
Paramount Pictures' "Waiting for Superman," opening in Washington on Friday, spotlights both the limits of the lottery system and the reforms undertaken by D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Instead of public school, the girls attend Sidwell Friends, a 15-acre, Quaker-affiliated K-12 campus in Tenleytown. More than 1,100 students attend Sidwell, where class size ranges from 11 to 16 students and tuition starts at $31,069 a year. Presidents Bill Clinton, Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon also sent their children to Sidwell.
In response to Obama's remarks, Chancellor Michelle Rhee's office released a statement: "DCPS welcomes competition and is working for the day when all DCPS schools can effectively compete with the best private schools. We are proud of the growth our students have shown during the last three years of reform, and that growth -- and the reforms -- will continue until D.C. has the world-class public education system that the District's children deserve."
Obama and his staff have supported Rhee, whose polarizing school reforms focused on firing ineffective teachers, closing schools and relying heavily on test scores to measure performance.
The American Federation of Teachers and Washington Teachers Union did not answer requests for comment.
Amid concerns that Rhee would step down because Council Chairman Vincent Gray is likely to replace her ally Adrian Fenty as mayor, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "I'd love to see Michelle have a 10-year run in D.C."
Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center of Education Policy, said Obama's comments were in line with his support of Rhee's reforms.
"I don't think the president is winning himself or his party any votes in the upcoming elections by the stance he's taken," said Whitehurst, a Department of Education program director during George W. Bush's presidency. "But I do think it's driven by a deep-filled sense of a desire to make schools better."